This is the time of year, with concerts scarce on the ground while musicians share holiday time with friends and family, that I turn to new recordings for musical inspiration. A new CD by Chicago-based soprano Michelle Areyzaga and pianist Dana Brown was the perfect tonic as I stayed inside avoiding our first snowfalls of the year.
“Were I with Thee” is the title of the newly released CD of art songs by American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries set to texts by women. The 26 songs range from single selections by a composer, to excerpts from song cycles, to complete cycles. Most of the music is not widely recorded and five of the works are world premiere commercial recordings, so there is bound to be something new and exciting for most listeners.
There is a strong concentration of settings to Emily Dickinson, including “Wild Nights!” set by three different composers. These are interspersed throughout the CD and the settings are so different and individual that you rejoice in the rich variety of musical ideas this one short poem has sparked.
Richard Pearson Thomas’s setting of “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” is the shortest at just 1:19 and it is the most introverted and sly of the three approaches. Thomas avoids the rippling piano the other two settings use effectively and establishes the watery setting with music resembling a sea shanty and the effect is to emphasize a magical adventure.
Lee Hoiby’s “Wild Nights” is the most wild, with immediate use of exotic tonality and piano lines that rush with the power of great waves. This is a sensuous setting, full of urgency and passion.
Gwyneth Walker entitles her setting to this same poem “Passion”, and imbues it with powerful desire, opening with an immediate sense of passionate anticipation. There are big piano tremolos, and in what the program notes calls accompanying “unbridled vocal tremolos”. I’d call these vocal effects something like yodels, but they are striking and memorable whatever label is put upon them, and they add excitement and drama.
All these settings are true to Dickinson, yet each emphasizes different elements of the poem, each complementing the others.
There is a large range of styles represented in the music selected for this disc. The opening track, a setting of “How Do I Love Thee” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is by Edouard Lippé (1884–1956) with a florid, romantic style that heats up the text and charms the listener. Areyzaga sings with gossamer softness in the opening, drawing you into this marvelously composed declaration of love.
There is beautiful music by Chicago composer Wayland Rogers. He gives “To My Dear and Loving Husband” by Anne Bradstreet a simple setting and Areyzaga’s caressing treatment of the text is marvelous. Rogers’s music is also represented in three songs to poems by Gabriela Mistral. “El Aire” is appropriately airy and Areyzaga and Brown’s performance puts you in mind of gentle breezes and softly floating clouds. “Apegado a mi” is one of the most gorgeous songs in this collection, with beguiling music for a lullaby enhanced by Areyzaga’s delicate phrasing and warmth of tone.
Gwyneth Walker’s setting of Mistral’s “La Luz” is marvelous, with Brown offering harp-like sound and Areyzaga providing shimmering brightness.
Several Emily Dickinson songs by Hoiby sit alongside “Wild Nights” and “The Shining Place” has particularly idiosyncratic music that captures Dickinson’s very individual approach. Soprano earnestness adds marvelous depth. “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle” inspired Hoiby to compose stormy, jarring music that is almost otherworldly and Areyzaga embodies the remarkable strangeness that then gives way to a bold and triumphant conclusion.
The most unusual text for a song is “The Waltz” by Dorothy Parker. Here Hoiby has created a fine musical theater piece where the singer alternates between a polite conversation with a terrible dancer, to her own wicked, inner thoughts about the man treading on her toes. Areyzaga does splendid work making these two different streams of thought clear, and the results are most amusing.
A few years ago Chicago soprano and composer Patrice Michaels wrote a song cycle about Ruth Bader Ginsburg entitled “The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg”. (Michaels is married to the late supreme court justice’s son.) Two excerpts from this cycle are included on this disc and they highlight Areyzaga’s ability to make prose sing.
The recording’s final seven songs are texts by Dickinson again, this time “Emily! (from New England)” by Gwyneth Walker. These put Walker’s incredible sense of melody on display with both soprano and pianist offering top-notch performances. I love the ominous sense of “The Moon and the Sea” and “The Frog in the Bog” puts the performers’ great sense of humor on display.
The CD is published by 4Tay Records, with the cover art created by one of Emily Dickinson’s living relatives. Visit WereIWithThee.com for more information.
Michelle Areyzaga will be performing in Hyde Park with the Chicago Ensemble in June. Among the works on the program are Canzonettas for voice and piano as well as settings of Emily Dickinson, this time by composer Ingrid Stoelzel. The concert takes place at International House on Jun. 12 at 3 p.m. Visit TheChicagoEnsemble.org for more information.